AltFem recognizes National Eating Disorders Awareness Week:
Her hair was falling out in clumps. Her body temperature was below normal. Her heart rate was 40 beats per minute. Her sodium and potassium levels were dangerously low.
She weighed 83.4 pounds—for a girl of 5 feet 8 inches.
She was 18 years old. She was in the fight for her life. And she was me.I grew up the oldest of three children. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an overachiever and a perfectionist. I’ve struggled with the desire to control everything and to be approved of. I got straight As, was a varsity athlete, starred in the school play, was class secretary. I had friends, and I enjoyed high school. But things started to shift during my senior year.
I got into a competitive college program where everyone else seemed miles ahead of me. I began to drift apart from the friends I’d had since kindergarten, and I was scared to start college not knowing a single person there. Life felt like it was slipping from my grasp, so I turned to the one thing I thought I could easily control: food.
I gave up sweets for Lent. Then my denial of cookies, chocolate, and cake continued past Easter. No one batted an eye. All my friends were talking about looking good in their prom and graduation dresses, so passing on certain foods was no big deal. I had always been tall and thin – but healthy. But I had no extra weight to lose, and it soon became apparent even those sweets had been a necessary part of a healthy diet for me.
No sweets became fewer carbs became less dairy became less fat. I had no intention to develop an eating disorder. But by the Fourth of July—a mere three months later—I definitely did. My parents noticed something was wrong; they approached me as I sat by our pool in a bathing suit, looking alarmingly thin. I convinced them and myself that I was fine. I still was healthy, even if a bit thinner. All I needed was a fresh start.
So off to college I went, under the condition I’d meet with a doctor and a therapist on a weekly basis to discuss my, er, issues.
Three weeks later, I had to withdraw from school for medical reasons.
I remember that day vividly. I went to my school’s football game. It was pouring rain, and I was wearing three jackets and boots and still freezing. (Being underweight will do to you.) I got a call from my parents during the game, saying that they were in the car on their way to visit me that day. I was so confused—my college is a six-hour drive from my family’s home, and my younger brother and sister still lived at home. My parents picked me up from the game at halftime and brought me to their hotel. There they revealed they had spoken to my doctor—I was no longer healthy enough to stay in school. Not only that, but I needed to go home and enter an inpatient treatment program immediately.
I remember feeling in a daze. I cried hysterically in my parents’ hotel room. I decided to take a bath to help myself calm down, but my body was so thin and bony that sitting in a bathtub actually hurt. I can recall lying on that hotel bed with my dad, wrapped up in a robe and blankets, feeling more tired than I had ever felt in my entire life. Just total and complete exhaustion. My dad held me as I finally fell asleep. I was ashamed, I was saddened, and I was embarrassed.
Yet part of me was relieved—I could finally stop pretending I was ok when I so far from it.
That September I signed myself into a behavioral health hospital for an intensive inpatient treatment. I was agreeing to stay as long as doctors deemed necessary. My diagnosis: anorexia nervosa.
Part of admittance was a full-body check, and of course a blood test and height and weight check. I caught a glimpse of the scale as the check-in nurse measured me. 83.4 pounds. 83.4 pounds. That’s like the weight of my Golden Retriever, or the weight of a newborn calf, or even the weight of my then-12-year-old brother.
Seeing that number on the scale was a shock for me. I couldn’t believe it. You see, when you’re in the throes of an eating disorder, your mind begins to play tricks on you. It’s not that I thought I was fat—I knew I wasn’t. But I didn’t think I was that sick.
I was in treatment for a few months before my weight stabilized and I was deemed healthy enough to leave treatment and return to school. (Yes, I went back to the same university and graduated—summa cum laude with a double major—in three and a half years, balancing my studies with weekly therapy sessions and doctors’ visits, multiple internships, and sorority life.) I could go on and on about what treatment was like, that’s really not the point of my story.
My point is I didn’t choose to have an eating disorder. Yet I felt shame as if I did. I was wracked with guilt over leaving college, costing my family thousands of dollars, and letting down those I loved most. I didn’t realize that restricting my food intake was my coping mechanism. Anorexia was my addiction, similar to the way others struggle with alcoholism, drugs, gambling, sex, even shopping. My eating disorder served as a way to cope with some much deeper issues in my life.
For so long I believed the media messaging that those with anorexia should simply “eat a hamburger” or “just stop doing this.” I’d see such comments, and even hear them from people I knew. At the same time, I’d see paper-thin models and actresses grace the covers of every magazine in the checkout aisles. I felt like I couldn’t win.
For so long I thought there was something inherently wrong with me. That I wouldn’t get over this disease. But if I could project a positive attitude and I followed my meal plan perfectly and gained X amount of weight, then everything would be just fine again. Then all of this suffering would go away.
For a long time, I felt like the credit for saving my life belonged to my doctors and my treatment team in college. They were definitely responsible for in helping me come out strong in the fight for my life. Of course, they say I saved my own life. That I committed myself to getting better, that I prioritized recovery, and that I worked hard. And, for a while, I believed it. Don’t we all love a good pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story? I gave myself the credit for my upward journey.
But, after some time I realized the truth: It wasn’t me, or my doctors, or my family who saved me. It was The Lord.
I believe in Jesus Christ, a God who saves through his Grace by our faith in Him. I’ve known Jesus since I was a baby. I went to church every Sunday, prayed before meals and before bed, and I would tell people about my beliefs if they asked. Still, I didn’t develop a truly personal relationship with Him until after college.
Moving to a small town halfway across the country for a post-college internship seemed like a total letdown at the time. No job, no ticket to the big city. But I now understand why God placed me in that environment: He led me to my now best friend, a woman who revealed her difficult past with me, who opened up about her own struggles, and who shared with me her steadfast faith.
Rachel encouraged and inspired me. We attended church and a Bible study together. For the first time, I was engaging in a Christian community outside of my family and outside of the school youth group. This was different. This was opening my eyes to the magnitude of God’s grace and the meaning of the Gospel. I began reading the Bible with fresh eyes, excited to know more.
Within a few months, I landed my dream job in New York City. Things fell into place rather quickly for me. An apartment, an incredible Church community, new friendships, and a serious boyfriend. It seemed God had me exactly where He wanted me to be.
At this point I had been in a “maintain” phase of my recovery for that past year. When I graduated college, I was in a really good place both mentally and physically. But after a couple weeks the Big Apple, I relapsed to my addictive behavior. The pressures to succeed, to make it in this new city, to prove to everyone and to myself that I was worth it, to show I could balance everything—it all became too much for me. I was scared and feeling out of control, and slowly the restricting-food habits crept back in.
I honestly believe times like these are a spiritual attack. I’m sure many people might call me crazy, but I believe Satan works in cunning and mischievous ways. He picks at our weaknesses and aims to hurt us when we’re at our best. I was at my best in so many ways, but then suddenly I was going down, down, down again.
About 35 percent of those recovering from anorexia will experience a serious relapse, according to a 2004 study in the Psychological Medicine. After the onset of such a relapse, the average person dies 18 months later. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, yet only about 1 in 10 people with eating disorders will get treatment.
I will forever be grateful to my then-boyfriend for having an intervention with me at this time. We’d only been together a few months, but we loved each other deeply and shared our faith. He approached me with concern and love; he laid hands on me as he prayed for my healing.
That moment was a turning point for me.
Therapy sessions returned as a part of my weekly routine. I met with a dietician, and I re-learned how to take care of myself and adjust to my new life in NYC. Most importantly of all, I utilized prayer, and I revealed my deep dark secret to my new friends from church. They took me under their wings and discipled me. They, along with my boyfriend and my doctors and my family, checked in on me and helped hold me accountable.
Praying together about my struggle helped alleviate the shame. Going on dates and girls’ nights out made eating enjoyable again. It was a re-training process. My identity didn’t have to be wrapped up in calories or weight or my dress size. As I regained my weight, my mind became clearer, too. My true personality came back, and for the first time really ever, I felt like a woman. (It didn’t hurt that my boobs went up a cup size, too!)
Where there hard days? Absolutely. I think that’s a normal part of any recovery process. There were plenty of ups and downs, but my overall trajectory was upward. And I felt alive.
Today, I’m happy and strong. If I’m being honest, I would like to and I should gain a bit more weight, and my doctor agrees that would help my health and give me a clearer head. But my attitude on weight gain can quickly shift if I am not careful. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that’s somewhat obsessed with food, healthy living, and the female body. So I see a counselor through my church every week and check in with a psychiatrist every few months.
Not a day goes by that I don’t have to be conscious of my recovery. I try to start and end each day by talking to God, thanking Him for how far He’s brought me and asking Him to help guide me through the day. I ask Him to heal me fully, and heal me He does. He has slowly chipped away at guilt and shame. He’s helped me to trust in His plan because He is in control, not me. I can’t even begin to express how freeing that is.
I am now learning to cast my anxieties onto Him. I don’t need not be perfect, or be approved of by anyone but Him. After all, perfection isn’t possible on earth. The great news is that Christ is perfect, and He knows my heart and my soul. His perfect love casts out all fear. What an amazing and sweet truth to behold.
I had always wondered, Why did this happen to me? Why do I struggle with anorexia? What’s the purpose?
Perhaps this was The Lord’s way of keeping me close to Him. I know I wouldn’t be the woman I am today, and I certainly wouldn’t have the faith I have today, if not for these experiences. I’ve learned many times about how we as Christians are made anew in Christ. The old self is gone, and the new self remains. He brings us from death to life. Scripture tells us this repeatedly.
And I realize now, that’s not just a Bible story; it is also my story. God literally brought me back to life when I should have been dead! My body was withering away, and I was holding on with a weak heartbeat at the age of 18. Knowing now what I know about my blood tests and my weight at that time, I cannot deny I was facing death.
But I am here, alive and well, six years later. And I truly believe God saved me. I now attribute my healing to His saving power and grace. I am a living example of it. My story continues to unfold, and my healing is ongoing, but I know God will never stop loving me and reaching for me with gentle passion. I am fearfully and wonderfully made in His image. Knowing and resting on that, rather than some false idea of flawlessness, is what continues to give me hope, confidence, and strength.
My old self is gone. My new self, and my ever-new relationship with God, lives.
This week, February 22 through 28, is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. If you are suffering from an eating disorder, know you are not alone and there are many people and resources that can help. Check out nationaleatingdisorders.org, anad.org, and nedawareness.org for more information.
This article was submitted by an Anonymous author.
Photo Credit: Melissa Brewer